David Brooks has written a column that — even by the standards of Brooks’s work — is a weird one.
Brooks seems to be satirizing himself in a column about “The Thought Leader” – a sort of vacuous public intellectual who issues pronouncements to others like him while never meaningfully moving the culture forward.
The Thought Leader is sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler. Each year, he gets to speak at the Clinton Global Initiative, where successful people gather to express compassion for those not invited. Month after month, he gets to be a discussion facilitator at think tank dinners where guests talk about what it’s like to live in poverty while the wait staff glides through the room thinking bitter thoughts.
The Thought Leader, in Brooks’s telling, began his life as an aggressive, “snarky” blogger: “Soon he will be writing blog posts marked by coruscating contempt for extremely anodyne people: ‘Kelly Clarkson: Satan or Merely His Spawn?’” It would seem Brooks is calling to the carpet younger iterations of himself, telling them that they, too, will become the anodyne people they mock, because Having A Baby Changes Everything. For the Thought Leader, who Brooks portrays as having sold out to the world of consulting, “The desire to be snarky mysteriously vanishes with the birth of the first child.”
But the kids out there are making fun of the Thought Leader — even though Brooks stipulates that the Leader is the one who knows better than anyone else how mediocre he is. “By his late 50s, the Thought Leader is a lion of his industry, but he is bruised by snarky comments from new versions of his formerly jerkish self. Of course, this is when he utters his cries for civility and good manners, which are really just pleas for mercy to spare his tender spots.”
What are Brooks’s tender spots? If this is to be read, as Brooks told New York’s Daily Intel, as his attempt “to be amusing about the life people like me lead,” then people like David Brooks are overpaid functionaries in a machine that capitalizes on willing participation from anyone thirsty enough to play an ultimately meaningless part.
Make no mistake, Brooks is a (lowercase) thought leader — people take seriously, still, anyone who has weekly real estate on the op-ed pages. But Brooks’s own contempt for capital-letters Thought Leaders as folks who are merely engaging in self-preservation makes one wonder if there’s something he might be doing that might make him happier than well-compensated, unrisky gigs at the Times and at Yale, something that might bring back the rude energy of youth. In the end of the column, after all, the Thought Leader dies. Life is short!